Submitted by Rabbi Benjamin Zober
“Thou shalt not murder.” (Ex. 20:13) It is so simple, and yet is misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied. Murder is calculated, unjustified and intentional taking of life. When we, under the supposed color of law, deliberate, decide, and plan the purposeful extinguishing of human life, we commit murder. The death penalty is murder.
The federal government’s recent rush to executions is a grim and heart-wrenching example. Despite the outcry of over 1,000 faith leaders, with blatant disregard for the rule of law and shameful indifference to the calls of victims’ family members and loved ones opposing the execution, the administration charged forward claiming “justice.”
Victims and their families do deserve justice. They deserve to know that the actual perpetrators are held accountable. The death penalty is rife with racial prejudice against people of color. It has been plagued by socio-economic and geographic biases, prosecutorial misconduct, and trial errors. Since the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1973, over 170 individuals on death row have been proven innocent. It is not a question of whether the state has killed innocent men and women, but of how many.
We are commanded, “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) We cannot do this by taking lives, acting in anger, or vengeance, or by creating more bloodshed, trauma, and pain. Tragically, that is exactly what happened when the government resumed executions this July.
After a 17-year hiatus, executions resumed, in the middle of a pandemic, placing everyone involved in danger, including victims’ family members, media, and corrections personnel. Despite unresolved legal and procedural questions, in an unprecedented and extremely troubling move, in the middle of the night the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to end Daniel Lewis Lee’s life, all while he was strapped to the execution chamber gurney for hours after his original execution warrant expired.
It is said that a court that “would execute somebody once in 7 years would be considered destructive…another says: ‘Once in 70.’” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10) And yet that same week, the state sanctioned the murders of Wesley Purkey, who suffered from mental impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and brain damage, and Dustin Honken, who experienced abhorrent childhood abuse.
Every life is sacred and deserves dignity. When one life is devalued, all are devalued. There is a world in every person, every life — perhaps the world of someone who committed a crime, but nonetheless the world of a father or a son, a mother or daughter, sister or brother, or friend. “Anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Sadly, the federal government plans to take more lives, disregarding the sanctity and dignity of all human life.
If we are truly committed to justice, we must end state-sanctioned murder, and demand that our legal system deliver restorative justice, tempered with mercy and fairness. In Nevada, where the State doesn’t currently have the means to carry out an execution, it is past time that our State’s leaders realize the moral cost of the biased, arbitrary, and capricious death penalty and abolish it for good.
Rabbi Benjamin Zober lives in Reno, Nevada, and is a former Assistant Ohio Public Defender, Death Penalty Division
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